Long relegated to the subservient stance of pleasing the masses, yet remaining anonymous, Grenache emerges from the shadows to reveal a personality encompassing great range, beauty and amazing strength.
I think of Grenache as the textbook example of a “Cinderella Grape”. Using the storybook analogy of one who is reviled, despised, largely ignored and overshadowed by its siblings, we visualize Grenache on its knees scrubbing the floors, while Syrah and Mourvedre take turns donning their ball gowns and curtsying to the Prince.
But in recent years, Grenache has begun to gain the respect that it so greatly deserves. So let’s take a visit to its native lands to learn more about its inherent nature and defining roles.
The origin of Grenache is generally agreed to be Aragon in Spain, then migrating to Sardinia in Italy (there called cannonau), Rioja in Spain, and then to Roussillon and the Southern Rhone of France. It is also a major player in Australia and has produced some shining examples in California.
The properties that distinguish grenache are that it’s late-ripening, thin-skinned, lacking color and tannic structure, but if well maintained can produce a wine with good balancing acidity, yet high alcohol gained from the long growing season needed to garner phenolic ripeness. Hence why Grenache is often blended with varieties such as syrah (which adds color and spice) and mourvedre (which gives elegance and tannic structure). For a grape whose name is so little known, it is the second most planted red grape in the world. I like to think the most affordable and appealing renditions come from the Southern Rhone region of France, a climate that is hot and arid with strong winds called Le Mistral. Grenache is one of the rare varieties that thrives in these conditions, as its sturdy trunks and upright structure stand firm against the elements, and its vines reach deep into the unforgiving soil to reach water tables far below.
The Southern Rhone is dominated by the grenache grape, with syrah and mourvedre playing second fiddle. The most affordable appellations are the Cotes-du-Rhone and Cotes-du-Rhone-Villages wines, and those of the lesser-known single villages of Rasteau and Sablet. The most profound examples hail from the “glamour village” of Chateauneufdu-Pape, where up to 13 varieties are allowed. Lucky for us that the wonderfully appealing and affordable wines from the 2009 Southern Rhone are now available for our enjoyment. The Wine Spectator recently reported on the 2009s stating it “was an outstanding year resulting in scads of great values outside the glamour appellations where high prices have become the norm.” They described the wines of this vintage as “rounded, polished, fruit-driven profiles that should age nicely over a 10 to 15 year period.”
Two very fine wines from this vintage that are locally available:
2009 Kermit Lynch Cotes du Rhone Rouge; France (under $15)
2009 Vieux Telegraphe Chateauneuf-du- Pape, France. (around $70)
Now let’s head over to it’s birthplace of Spain, where it’s called garnacha, and where it is the number one planted red grape in the nation! Although it reigns supreme in Priorat, it is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Rioja region, where tempranillo gets all the respect, dominating the blend at 70 to 80 %, leaving garnacha to fill in the balance. Tempranillo is angular and austere, whereas garnacha provides the stuffing and immediate charm to the duo (think Arthur Miller as tempranillo with Marilyn Monroe blowing kisses as garnacha).
One of my favorite ways to introduce the wines of Grenache/garnacha is to liken them to Pinot Noirs with a “white pepper” kick. So imagine my delight when I read the following from renowned Wine Sommelier Rajat Paar in his book SECRETS OF THE SOMMELIERS: “Grenache shares a few traits with Pinot Noir: both grapes are thin-skinned and relatively generous in sugar production, and tend to make light-colored, reddish wines. Where they differ is that Pinot likes cooler, even foggy weather, and Grenache thrives in hot sun.” In praising Grenache he goes on to say that it can make “some of the most alluring wines in the world.” He also quotes Heather Branch: “It’s one of the most beautiful and versatile wines in existence….it’s a miraculous grape, on par with Pinot Noir… and sometimes even more versatile with food than Pinot.”
So here’s the real charm of Grenache……. it’s propensity to pair well with a myriad of dishes, especially those with challenging sauces, spices and acidity. Joshua Wesson, in WINE AND FOOD, pairs Grenache with his Capellini with Tomatoes, explaining “it provides both ripe red fruit and mouthwatering acidity to complement the tomatoes in this dish”.
Common descriptors for Grenache-based wines are: stewed red fruits with hints of white pepper; brisk acidity with a rustic sauvage character; whereas riper versions highlight the supple body and red cherry notes. The following wines are also readily available in the Birmingham Market:
2007 Guigal Cotes du Rhone; France 2010 Kermit Lynch Vaucluse; France 2009 Hope Family Vineyards Grenache; California 2009 Evodia “Old Vine Garnacha”; Spain2009 Alpha Box and Dice “Tarot” Grenache; Australia